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Por mi Reggae Muero: Why Reggaetón Still matters

Por mi Reggae Muero: Why Reggaetón Still matters

By William Garcia

“Con mi Reggae muero, no quiero parar de bailar con el yo muero, quiero que el corillo me grite bellaqueo, no quiero parar de bailar vamos al perreo”

Wisin y Yandel, “Por Mi Reggae Muero” (2000)

It has been many years since Ivy Queen shook the crowd singing “Somos Raperos Pero No Delincuentes!” which was a fiery response against Velda Gonzales and the Mano Dura Operation against reggaetón. It was also a time of tension due to the National Guard standing in front of the caceríos (housing projects) and police abuse in times of vicious socio-economic and racial inequality. Eddie Dee’s “Señor Official”, Baby Rasta and Gringo’s “Cierra los Ojos Bien”, Lito and Polaco’s “Testimonios de la calle”, and Tempo’s “Hagan Ruidos las Pistolas”, were musical productions of reggaetón against these turbulent times. Reggaetón as a form of protest was, of course, not very marketable to a general Hispanophilic and Latin American audience that was distant towards hip-hop culture, urban sufferings and Caribbean Jamaican fusions. It also allowed, however, a space to carve out an identity for those excluded from mainstream Puerto Rican society.

In Zaire Dinzey Flores’ article “Criminalizing Communities of Poor, Dark women in the Caribbean” (2011), she argues that in 1993, the “Mano Dura Contra el Crimen” policy implemented in Puerto Rico to fight crime led to an increase stigmatization and isolation of public housing communities.[1] Meaning that the legacy of reggaetón, which became commercialized, arose from inequalities from local and foreign governments. The local reggaetón label companies in Puerto Rico were successful in making an impact in Latin America. However, it was not tropicalized (whitened) enough to sell to all demographics in Latin America and the United States. Tropical or Urban music became a term coined by music corporations with attempts to efface Afro-diasporic rhythms and whitewash its urban roots into an acceptable pan-Latin nomenclature.

A breaking point in reggaetón occurred when the rapper and producer Tempo (David Sanchez Badillo), considered the most prominent and acclaimed rapper in Puerto Rico, served twelve years in prison for drug trafficking (2002-2013). Tempo was one of many who adapted the style of ‘gangster rap’ from the United States into reggaetón music. The frustration of poverty and social inequality can be witnessed in Tempo’s music. In this society, the privilege of driving an expensive car and wearing an expensive chain only becomes a problem once this privilege falls under the hand of the working-class. Tempo expressed his frustration with the higher classes and their privilege of material wealth through many of his songs including “Amen”:

Si soy rapero me marginan y me discriminan,

pero en ventas de discos nosotros ponemos la disciplina.

sé que lastima a ver los raperos en la cima

se te incomoda al saber que tenemos casa con piscina

que hay artistas, que en ellos invierten millones

y nosotros vendemos más discos por nuestras canciones­­.[2]

Tempo’s lucid emphasis on acquiring material wealth and power exemplifies how material wealth and privilege becomes repulsive and threatening to society at large as soon as the lower classes acquire the same access. Tempo the most radicalized reggaetónero of his time, was more connected to his neighborhood Los Lirios in Ponce until he got arrested, which as a result disintegrated the politics of subversive ‘gangster rap’. As a result, artists like Daddy Yankee, who shared similar histories of poverty, displacement and social class discrimination, became more committed to commercial expansion. Since then, reggaetón has been commercialized to a strict Latin American audience with artists like Don Omar creating Brazilian fusions, while others have fused reggaetón with merengue, salsa, and bachata.

Although many others like Polaco, Jowell y Randy, Falo, OG Black, among others, are trying to return to more Jamaican dembow rhythms through the “Back to the Underground” movement, hip-hop elements to reggaetón continue to be ignored. Others have gone back to the underground hip-hop and reggaetón music. After the release of Tempo from prison there has been a dramatic rise in fusing hip-hop elements to reggaetón. While hip-hop and reggaetón remain two different genres in many countries such as Cuba, in Puerto Rico, reggaetón and hip-hop are not mutually exclusive terms. Tempo’s recent refusal to sign with big companies and his initiative to create a different space for reggaetón can be seen through his unending rivalry with Cosculluela–who represents new possibilities for reggaetón. Despite Tempo’s accomplishments, he is one of the few rappers who have made fierce attempts toward advocating for reggaetón and hip-hop. Yet, most educators and intellectuals remain uninterested in introducing reggaetón to the fields of education, social activism, media, arts, and computer technology.

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Tempo’s recent song, “Tu Historia” (2015) (among other musical productions), attempts to change the ways artists produce reggaetón and begin to take a politicized stand to defend and transform reggaetón culture. In this song Tempo states:

Wow. Como todo cambió increíblemente.

El género se convirtió en uno sin precedentes

Mientras yo estuve ausente,

Calle 13 Ganó Grammy

La gasolina del Daddy, le abrió puertas a mucha gente…

…Ahora es urbano

ya esto no es reggaetón

y lo que está sonando en la radio es un aburrimiento…

In this verse, Tempo is hinting at reggaetón going mainstream and becoming devoid of any politicized element. Reggaetón was indeed a subversive voice of the urban centers in Puerto Rico, which many in power preferred not to talk about. As soon as Tempo was released out of prison he made an album titled “Free Music” and disseminated it for free allowing people to download it for free on his website yosoytempo.com. In the television show Ruben & Company (2014), Tempo was questioned and criticized for his hip-hop culture and the lyrical content in his songs. Because the interview was more accusatory rather than interactive, Tempo was forced to tell them what they wanted to hear. The same occurred to the artist Mexicano who was criminalized and stigmatized throughout most of his career by many reporters including Ruben Sanchez and others. Instead of focusing on poverty, racism, social class, and segregation, the focus is always on reggaetón and its artists—not its content or its depth.

The recent lyrical confrontation between Tempo and Cosculluela (Jose Fernández Cosculluela), who is of Cuban and Puerto Rican descent, has created an important clash of old versus new reggaetón. Cosculluela, who comes from a wealthy family, grew up in an exclusive gated community of Palmas del Mar, in Humacao, Puerto Rico. In contrast to Tempo, Cosculluela grew up in a wealthy community where he played tennis and had a passion for golf and surfing. However, Cosculluela and his brother Jaime were extremely talented in making mixtapes. As many of us have seen, what is most disconcerting about todays reggaetón is the similarities between artists and their musical beats, their messages, and lack of originality–Cosculluela being one of them. Interestingly, it’s the same people that come from these kinds of backgrounds that attack reggaetón.

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Reggaetón Under Attack

It is not the first time reggaetón has been under attack but there has recently been an increase of utilizing social media and marketing strategies for attacking reggaetón: The recent Facebook page “WTF Puerto Rico” and “Apoya lo de Aquí Menos el Reggaeton, Eso No” (Support Everything From Here Except Reggaetón, Not that) created by Usama Hamid Numan, a Puerto Rican of Middle Eastern descent. This continuous cycle of scapegoating Puerto Rico’s problems to reggaetón and the urban working class is an old discourse.

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The campaign on one of the sites states the following: “Un poco sentido del humor nunca hace daño, esto nació de un poco de aburrimiento frente a la computadora en photoshop y terminó en las redes sociales. Si quieren la T-shirt por aquí mismo la pueden ordenar, recuerden eso no”. The passive vocabulary makes it seem like an innocent joke, which led to how the shirt miraculously ended up all on its own on “teespring.com”, a t-shirt selling website. This group has continued its crusade against reggaetón without taking into account the impact it may have on youth and other members of the community who actually partake in reggaetón culture. Each shirt costs 17.99 + 3.99 shipping = $21.98, which illustrates the hypocrisy and inconsistencies of criticizing reggaetón and material wealth by doing the exact thing. Instead of making shirts of corrupt politicians, corrupt cops, racial and social inequality, Puerto Rico’s colonial condition, the prison industrial complex, they instead chose to ridicule the disenfranchised and the ostracized.

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The meme above makes absolutely no sense in times of massive closing of schools due to socio-economic disparity, colonialism and mass migration to the United States. The demographics on the meme also make it very clear to whom it attempts to stifle: the black and the poor. This lack of moral conviction on caring for those in poverty is the purpose of anti-reggaetón sentiment, which results in reinforcing negative stereotypes of socio-economic poverty. Some of the mocking revolves around the website also parodies socio-economic struggles: “Dressing like a hip-hop artist, Know how to rime bad words, Make up the fact, that you were part of a gang and that you suffered as a kid and then say what you sing is about you, A strange name preferably in English then change it and then you have a name, To be a misogynist and to not care to degrade women in your song”.

The same happens to hip-hop in the United States with the recent controversy on the NWA film Straight Outta Compton (2015) that posted police officers by the movie theatres for fear of violence against police authorities and recent manifestations in Ferguson and Baltimore and other parts of the country. But many are defending hip-hop as opposed to reggaetón. In hip-hop culture, there is somewhat of a balance between “hip-hop conservatives” and “hip-hop sellouts.” Nonetheless, the anti-reggaetón campaign is blaming social, economic and cultural issues in Puerto Rico on reggaetón–such as the recent drought.

The notion that social backwardness and an urban deficit culture are responsible for Puerto Rico’s lack of development continues to this day. The notion that the “scum” of society is responsible for society’s issues creates tension and perpetuates the marginalization of the youth. It is hard to envision students seeing these types of shirts on the street, which tell our youth: “You are the problem. You are an undesirable hood rat who will achieve nothing in life”. Many of the youth have identified with reggaetón based on their urban cultural experiences in which they are constantly detained, questioned, attacked by police, and prevented from going into various commercial and government establishments. If the same occurred with hip-hop in the United States, there would be resistance.

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The real justification for censoring reggaetón is the belief that reggaetón has harmful effects on society, particularly children and adolescents. More importantly, it supposedly corroded Puerto Rican c­­­­ulture because of its foreignness. In other words, reggaetón is not “De Aquí” (from here) and at the same time not good enough to really be “Apoya lo de Aquí” (supported by those who are from here). Others have taken the time to ridicule the ills of reggaetón not to make it more conscious but for the pure sake of ridiculing. Materialism and individualism are indeed issues that affect all of society not just the reggaetón/hip-hop generation. There are more responsible ways to address the issues of searching for happiness through the accumulation of wealth. In this video, some guy parodies reggaetón artists and their constant bragging of material wealth. Again, this disrespectful approach is not the way to go about it.

The leftist weekly newspaper Claridad asked Fernando Clemente (a pseudonym, his real name was Roberto Fernández) who was a lawyer, humorist and a supposed leftist journalist, about underground and he responded harshly against the movement: “And who benefits from the ‘rapper look’ and—even worse—the rapper conduct? Definitely not! Where it leads us is, whether we like it or not, is to our colonial condition and the vulgar dominance of the United States economic power.” Other commentators such as Edwin Reyes expressed a similar sentiment when he posed “la tontería del rap” (the silliness of rap) in comparison to more traditional Puerto Rican music: “our music, learned and popular, multiple, beautiful, irreducible, the one that Juan Antonio Corretjer always exalted: the sublime of ‘Puerto Rican-ness.’” He was later criticized by scholar Rafael Bernabe’s “Rap: Soy Boricua Pa’ Que Tu lo Sepa” and accused Reyes as “dripping with classist prejudice.”[3] Others in the media have followed suit. The website Taringa.net published a short article titled “Reggaeton, arruinando la infancia” which attempts to rally the rock-crazed masses in Puerto Rico against reggaetón:

En fin, mis amigos rockanroleros estamos en pie de guerra, a partir de este momento declaro la paz entre los distintos estilos de rock y les invito a que unamos en contra de un estilo de música que define nuestro tercermundismo de manera brutal, hacienda que nuestra juventud crezca de un ambiente rodeado de vulgaridad, mal gusto y poca creatividad, declarémosle la guerra frontal, al maldito reggaetón.

This quote captures the role of rock (heavy metal) in Puerto Rico, which was against the cocolos (salsa lovers) during the heyday of salsa music in Puerto Rico, many of which, were stateside Puerto Ricans who had returned to Puerto Rico during the 1970s and 1980s. This quote also mentions the word tercermundismo, which alludes to the incessant desire to attack the working and empoverished class as much as possible despite the fact that heavy metal also shares a history of the same criticism they’re making against reggaetón, including but not limited to: violence, misogyny, vulgarity, and destruction. What’s interesting about this “rock” stand against reggaetón is the fact that African Americans were pioneers of rock, and also the fact that hip-hop, salsa, bugalú and reggaetón received many elements through rock music. An attack against one is an attack against all of them. Some of the movements’ desire against reggaetón through rock can be seen in images such as this one:

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In Search of Reggaetón and Hip-Hop Based Education (RHHBE)

One aspect in which we can continue to defend reggeatón and acknowledge its importance is by creating an educational approach to reggaetón. It has in fact, taken place in the past. Reggaetón education should be more than just the music and focus on its use as a tool for civic education, undoing misogyny, and as a contribution to uses of cultural relevant pedagogy. Cultural relevant pedagogy is supposed to be about teaching in a multi-cultural setting in ways that students can relate to the course and connect through their cultural context. There are many positive ways to channel reggaetón and hip-hop in ways that encourages students and facilitates their learning process. Tito Kayak himself, a fierce activist and environmentalist has used it in schools. In a video, he rapped about the environment and shows how reggaetón also has an important role in schools as an extra-curricular tool. Through comparing the beginnings of hip-hop and reggaetón from Vico C to Cosculluela, students will be able to engage in the history, transformations and discussions of its failures and successes. Reggaetón activism and education has to be part of student curriculums.

Reggaetón can work for change in communities, empower youth and give voice to unchecked issues. El Gemelo’s raptivism is a perfect example of this.

The Hip-Hop Science Genius contest is an educational hip-hop contest created by Christopher Emdin and Edmund King Adjapong in order to promote science through the language of hip-hop as culturally relevant. It is fascinating how it is changing students’ approach toward education in a system that wants them to fail. At this year’s contest, the group from Ellis High School won the 2015 competition through their hip-hop/reggaetón song “DNA”. Emdin and Adjapong’s exploration and pedagogical practices, teaching techniques and designs for curricula based on music and rhymes can be (and have been) easily applied to reggaetón.

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Another artist who is advocating for reggaetón and hip-hop pedagogy is GueroLoco. GueroLoco is a bilingual educational hip-hop artist focused on helping students learn another language through rhythm, repetition and motivation. He uses Spanish, English, reggaetón, and hip-hop to create socio-emotional intelligence such as positivity and life advice. As an artist GueroLoco has won 5 Chicago Music Awards awhile being an educator. Students can be given an opportunity to apply their life experiences with various school content courses and state standards.

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Among many educators, Chris Emdin has been one of the most successful at utilizing hip-hop in order to keep students engaged in the classroom. According to Emdin, hip-hop culture pedagogy can be creating hybrid and emerging cultures together through argumentations, cyphers, and fostering creativity. We should use these techniques and different perspectives in order to create culturally relevant reggaetón and Hip-Hop Based Education (RHHBE). An important artist that has been ignored is the reggaetón artist Miguelito now known as MTO (Miguel Angel Valenzuela Morales). Born in Puerto Rico, MTO–the youngest son to a Puerto Rican mother and Dominican father–is the youngest Latin Grammy Award winner certified by the Guinness Book of records.

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Currently at the age of 16, MTO has performed in various countries such as Ecuador, Colombia, and Dominican Republic. Aside from being a successful teenager and reggaetón artist, MTO has been a strong advocate against violence. On May 2011, he organized and led a march in San Juan against violence that attracted thousands of people, the Puerto Rico State Police superintendent, Jose Figueroa Sancha, former boxer legend Tito Trinidad, amongst other celebrities. Miguelito has transformed himself from a reggaetón artist child into an upcoming celebrity conquering the English and Spanish-speaking markets. MTO has recently created a reggaetón collaboration with Farruko called “Take Over the World” but there is hope he will record preexisting reggaetón collaborations. Although, MTO is not pedagogic, his legacy fills a void in reggaetón history.

Different spaces for reggaetón, especially in the realm of education, must be created. Tempo can’t defend reggaetón all by himself. He needs more artists to take a stand for reggaetón as was the case years ago. There used to be pride in being Caribbean, in spitting rhymes a cappella, in partaking in hip-hop, and in producing good music through exceptional DJs like DJ Negro, DJ Dicky, El Buddha, DJ Playero, and Rafy Mercenario. In addition, the recent loss of Mexicano to oral cancer and the lack of coverage aimed at documenting his real struggles shard by many of the urban youth remind us that reggaetón has to be defended now more than ever. The media has stigmatized Mexicano instead of documenting the social disparities and injustices to which Mexicano was a part of.

The reggaetón community must unite against the offensive attacks against reggaetón by many groups such as “Apoya Lo de Aqui, Menos el Reggaeton, Eso No” campaign. Regardless, of these attacks by the media, different governments in Latin America, hip-hop conservatives and middle class rokeritos, reggaetón is not dead nor will die; it will only transform again. These music corporations don’t entirely own reggaetón because it was never theirs to begin with. We should take this moment to create ‘Reggaetón and Hip-Hop Based Education’ (RHHBE). It will benefit our youth in the long run. Everyone should repeat after me with moral outrage –Por mi Reggae Muero! I know I’m not alone. It’s time to defend reggaetón.

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William Garcia is an Afro-Nuyorican by way of Staten Island. He has a BA and a MA in History from the University of Puerto Rico-Rio Piedras. His research interests are Afro-Latino history, hip-hop and reggaeton in the Caribbean and Puerto Rican transnational migration. He is currently an MA student in Curriculum and Teaching at the Teachers College of Columbia University in New York City. You can find him on Twitter @webdubois2014

[1] Zaire Zenit Dinzey-Flores, “Criminalizing of Poor, Dark women in the Caribbean: The Fight Against Crime in Puerto Rico’s Public Housing”, Crime Prevention and Community Safety, Volume: 13 Issue: 1 Dated: February 2011 Pages: 53 to 73.

[2] Tempo, Amen: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KOw_vJk1Wyw

[3] Op Cit, Raquel Rivera, “Policing Morality, Mano Bien Dura Style: The Case of Underground Rap and Reggae in Puerto Rico in the Mid-1990s.” Reggaetón: 121. Rafel Bernabé: Rap: Soy Boricua Pa Que Tu lo Sepa, Claridad, January 19-25, 1996.

Comments

  1. Juan

    Problemas fundamentales del artículo:
    1. El reggaetón no es un género autóctono de PR, sino de ida y vuelta que comenzó con el rap y las aportaciones de Panamá, PR, Rep. Dom, etc.
    2. Mezcla la política de la Mano Dura de Rosselló con la cruzada de Velda González, del PPD, contra los regaetoneros.
    3. Según el autor, “tropicalize” (o “tropicalizar”, palabra inventada por él), es sinónimo de “blanquear”, y se le olvida que esta hablando sobre un pueblo que en esencia es mestizo.
    4. El reggaetón es “atacado” por una mera cuestión subjetiva. No creo que es porque sea porque su música es asociada a los barrios marginados de San Juan. Si esto fuese lo contrario, ¿por qué ha tenido tanta acogida internacional, independientemente del gusto musical?
    Que no quede duda: el reggaetón,al igual que la salsa, son géneros de ida y vuelta. No quiere decir que no se pueden escuchar o respaldar, pero no son autóctonos. Por tanto, promoverlo como los géneros típicos no sería justo para los propios géneros típicos como la danza, la música jíbara, la bomba, plena, etc., que de por sí andan en peligro de extinción porque, contrario a lo que puede decir el autor de que el reggaetón es visto como un género bajo amenaza por falta de educación, estos sí que lo están. Primero que pongan en el currículo una clase de música (que no la hay) en la que enseñen quién fue Juan Morel Campos, Manuel G. Tavárez, Rafael Hernández y luego se puede discutir si el reggaetón podría discutirse si vale la pena incluir este tema.
    Por último, podría concedérsele al autor la iniciativa de utilizar el género del reggaetón como medio para la enseñanza. Con todo, primero habría que enfrentar el hecho de que apenas tenemos una clase de música en como parte de la educación primaria y secundaria de Puerto Rico.

    • William Garcia

      Tienes toda la razón hermano y estas duro. Da mucho pena de que no haya escuelas de música de esa indole. Obviamente como es un articulo no pude abarcar de lo que sugieres. En la maestría es fundamental. Gracias por tu comentario. Puerto es “mestizo” pero tenemos nuestras calificaciones raciales que van desde los mas blanco hasta lo mas negro que para los Norteamericanos es un poco raro para nosotros pues son categorías entendidas, que vienen del colonialismo español. Agradezco su aportación hermano y pa lante.

  2. Juan

    Agradezco también tu aportación al tema, pues es necesaria para promover la discusión sobre la música puertorriqueña. Muchas gracias a ti también.

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